Sex, Pens, and a Talisman of Forgiveness
I wrote last year about the day I resigned my teaching job in 2013. I included this, describing how I signed the document that ended my life as I had known it.
I have an old Montblanc fountain pen for the occasion. Fifteen years ago, I slept with a student whom I mentored. The student, Marie, transferred to NYU, and graduated with honors. When Marie graduated, her mother sent me the pen with a note, thanking me for my influence in her daughter’s life. When I asked that mentee/lover if her mother knew the full details of her relationship, Marie smiled. “Of course she does.”
(The pen was engraved with my initials on the barrel, except that Marie had somehow given her mother the wrong middle name for me. The barrel reads “HGS” in perpetuity, instead of HBS. It will be a decade before I mention the misprint to Marie, and she finds it hilarious.)
Considering its history and the events that led to this day, it is unthinkable to use another pen. I consider explaining its history to the lawyers, but it will seem too self-serving and unlikely. They won’t believe me. I swallow the story. Luckily, there’s just enough ink in the cartridge to get the agreement signed and dated. I smile at the lawyers, who smile at me.
I indulge myself by fantasizing that after my suicide, they will remember the élan and flourish with which I signed my name.
I’m still friends with that former student, whom I’ll now call Lily. (Marie I’ve used as a pseudonym for someone else. Forgive the confusion. I never use real names, and sometimes I mix myself up.)
When Lily was my student and my lover — and then my girlfriend, for a few desperate weeks — she was 18. I was 31. Today, she is 43; happily married to her second husband. Lily is a journalist and yoga teacher living on the East Coast. We are friends. She has told me many times over the years that as she has grown older, she has continued to believe that she had agency in our relationship. She reminds me that she did not feel taken advantage of as a teen, and now as a woman in midlife, she feels the same way.
I asked Lily last year if her mother felt the same way still, and my ex-student replied that she did indeed. “My mom feels sad that you torment yourself with guilt,” she said. “She wants to know if you still have the pen.”
Here’s why I’m writing about what I shouldn’t think about. Lily, her mother, and that pen have become a mental bulwark against accusations that I did real harm to the young students who took me into their beds. I am friends still with a few, have lost touch with most, and forgotten still others, but Lily remains the most loyal and constant. There has never been a rekindling of romance between us, even when we were both single; our friendship is based as much on our discussions of contemporary politics and poetry as it is on our memories of a few feverish weeks in the spring of 1998. In Lily’s eyes, and in her mother’s words, I remain something of a roguish innocent; a sinner perhaps, but more sinned against than sinning. I slept with a teen and something changed within her for the better, and it was so noticeable that she and her mother thank me to this day, a quarter century on! How flattering and comforting; what a stalwart defense against the charge that I was a scheming predator!
Why else would I have the pen if I hadn’t been harmless?
Not every girl was a Lily. It’s true that no one ever accused me of pressure, or of harassment. As I’ve said a thousand times, the only allegations of sexual misconduct you will ever find about me are those I published myself. (I am unique, as far as I know, in the annals of the cancelled to have been cancelled entirely on the basis of an uncorroborated confession.)
I don’t know how many students I slept with in my years at Pasadena. Certainly more than 20, and probably less than 40, but I honestly can’t be sure, and guess what? You have to take my word for it as there damn sure isn’t any evidence to prove or disprove anything I say. I remember small details like scents, and handwriting in journals, and books on shelves and crumpled bras and what kind of tea they drank, but a lot of names have faded away.
I was not always sober, and it was a long time ago.
Not every girl was a Lily. Absence of evidence of harm is not proof no harm was done. Absence of accusation may be about wanting to let bygones be bygones, or perhaps — and this is my great fear — about pity. I’ve already paid such a high price, and I already struggle with self-loathing, and I’m not exactly living a life of power and luxury; perhaps some of these exes (the youngest of whom is now over 30, the oldest well into midlife) see no reason to plunge me further into self-hatred. They want perhaps to make sure my kids keep their papa, and so they speak quietly to their husbands or girlfriends or therapists about how lust and infatuation have morphed into resentment, anger, and disappointment — but they spare me. Out of kindness, I suppose, as Townes Van Zandt sang.
I have the pen! It is in a drawer in my mother’s house, and I look at it sometimes when I visit, laughing at the misprinted middle initial, comforting myself that I did nothing wrong, promising myself that when I blurred the line between mentor and love, it still turned out happily for everyone.
That pen has saved me, and reassured me. It has reminded me I’m not as wicked as I thought; I’m as safe as houses, really; just a lovable, reckless rogue who never met a boundary he couldn’t step over!
That pen lies to me, and tells me that Lily is a stand-in for all the others who have never told me how they feel, all these years later.
Yes, I talk about this with therapists and friends. Sometimes, though, I need to write in order to understand, and more to the point, I need to be read by others in order to understand. My reality is shaped by reactions as well as elegant writing instruments.
I know too much to believe that the pen is absolution. I changed one young woman’s life for the better when we slipped off our clothes together. That’s one story. It cannot be the only one, but perhaps for my sanity’s sake, it must be the only one, and for better or worse, I can use the pen as absolution even when I know it isn’t. The alternative is a self-loathing and shame I can ill-afford.
Perhaps, in the end, all we can do is remind ourselves of the good we did do, even if it was done in inexplicable and indefensible ways. If the alternative is the unbearable horror of seeing and feeling the harm, better to let that one Montblanc pen write the story.